Most recently recognized for “The Shape of Water,” which received a monstrous 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Jenkins, the actor described the experience and recognition with a simple word: humbling.
“The first time [I received an Academy Award nomination], I thought, ‘This is great. I got nominated, it’s fantastic,’” he said. “And then it happened again and it’s like, ‘Really?’ It’s an honor and it’s humbling.”
“The Shape of Water,” directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Jenkins, is set in the 1960s and follows the story of Elisa Esposito (Hawkins), a janitor in a top secret research facility, as she falls in love with an amphibious creature being held captive. Jenkins plays Giles, a gay advertisement illustrator and Esposito’s neighbor.
Jenkins, 70, was drawn to the film as soon as he read the script.
“It always comes back to the character you’re asked to play. Could you respond to it? Do you read it and go, ‘I’d like to try this?’ Or do you read it and go, ‘There’s other people that could do this a little better than me,’” he said.
“He sent me an email and said, ‘I want you to play Giles, here’s the script, I hope you love it as much as I do.’ I read it and I sent him back an email and said, ‘I think I do,’” he added.
In the film, Giles decides to profess his attraction to a diner employee, but is rejected and discriminated against. That scene, Jenkins said, is one he is happy del Toro put in the film, especially since it is set in the 1960s, because “it changes everything.”
“I was in high school in 1962, and if you were a straight, white man, life was good. But if you were not, it wasn’t so great. I always say, ‘We had no gay people in our high school until our 35th reunion,’” Jenkins said. “It was a huge risk Giles took, but he was a lonely man and he can’t be who he’s supposed to be in that society. What is he feeling that he’ll reach out and put his hand on somebody else’s hand in 1962?”
But before he became a household name after appearing in “Step Brothers,” “Olive Kitteridge,” for which he earned an Emmy Award, and “The Visitor,” which earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, Jenkins was getting ready to spend four years at Illinois Wesleyan University’s theater department.
“I’ve always wanted to be an actor, ever since I can recall. That’s what I wanted to do since I [first] went to the movies,” he said. “I don’t know if I ever doubted it, but I felt I may not have the talent to do it.”
“Illinois Wesleyan was a great fit for me, because I had no experience when I came,” he added. “It was a nurturing place for me. I really found it to be where it became clear to me what I wanted to do with my life. For me, it was like going to Europe to go to Bloomington.”
He said he struggled his freshman year because he got mononucleosis, better known as mono, and found himself not “participating” as much as he would have wanted to. However, once he recovered, he saw that IWU was “the right school.” He even attended dances at Illinois State University and competed on IWU’s swim team.
“[ISU] guys killed us,” he said while laughing.
During his undergraduate days, Jenkins said he received guidance from former Director of the School of Theater Arts John Ficca.
“He really was instrumental in me saying to myself: ‘You can do this. You’re going to do this.’ I think I would’ve done it anyway, because it never occurred to me not to do it, but he gave me confidence,” Jenkins explained. “He said to me, ‘I think this is the career for you.’ To have somebody say that to you is huge.”
“I loved being on stage there, I loved the people, the students. College is a really great thing. And it’s not just the education, you learn life skills. For me, it was huge,” he added.
After he graduated in 1969, Jenkins said a lot of luck was on his side. He was made a company member of Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, where he stayed for 14 years as an actor. During that time, he learned a lot of about the career he was hoping to break through in.
“One thing I learned is that I wasn’t any good. Then the real work began,” Jenkins said. “How do you get better? I was boring myself, so you know you’re not any good. If I was boring myself on stage, you can imagine what the audience must be feeling.”
One day, he was performing a play at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and Bill Tresh, a manager from New York, was watching with actress Sandy Dennis, best known from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
“For some reason she was at the play and during the play, she pointed at me and said, ‘Sign him,’” Jenkins said. “He came backstage and said he wanted to represent me.”
“There’s a lot of talented and gifted actors that just never got their break,” he continued. “I look back on my life and think if I had done that, this wouldn’t have happened and that wouldn’t have happened. Luck plays a huge part in this.”
Since then, he has worked with and met notable names in film including ISU alumnae Laurie Metcalf and Jane Lynch.
The Bloomington-Normal roots are still present in Jenkins’ life. He has gone through award season alongside Metcalf, who is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for “Lady Bird,” calling her one of the “great actors anywhere.”
With the 90th Academy Awards airing live Sunday, Jenkins will wrap up promotion for “The Shape of Water.” It is the 10th film in Oscar history to earn 13 nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Jenkins believes the film “struck a chord” with audiences, praising del Toro’s storytelling.
“[del Toro] didn’t know how it was going to be received, he didn’t have any idea,” Jenkins said. “As he said, which I love, ‘Success and failure live right next to each other, and there are no numbers on the door. You just knock.’ That’s kind of how it works.”
Jenkins said he is taking a break to focus on family after award season wraps up. If anything comes along that is interesting to him, he said he will “jump in there,” because a person’s passion never takes a break.
“The thing I tell young actors is: if you’re made to do this, if this is what you have to do in your life, you will figure it out and find a way,” he said. “There is a place for you.”